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The Cutting Edge: Computing / Technology / Innovation : PLOWSHARES : Nuclear Lab Technology Is in the Air at Disney

Walt Disney Co. is hoping to use a little nuclear-weapons magic to keep its theme parks clean, safe and fun.

Meetings last summer between Disney executives and scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico included discussions of resonant ultrasound techniques to test the structural integrity of rides, as well as alternative fuels for the energy-hungry rides, advanced pyrotechnics for better fireworks displays and battle-simulation software for managing traffic flow.

One of the ideas being explored by Disney and Los Alamos involves a technique used to measure the fallout from a nuclear explosion. Disney is interested in using the technology, known as light detection and ranging, or “lidar,” to monitor the air quality at its giant theme parks. Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., will be the first test site.

A cousin of radar (which stands for radio detection and ranging), lidar has existed for more than half a century, but scientists at Los Alamos were the first to apply the technology to track and control air pollution. Researchers have recently made a great leap forward in the field by reducing the size of a lidar system and improving the usefulness of the lidar data.

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Lidar uses pulses of light in much the same way radar collects information from radio waves. A laser mounted on a telescope shines a beam into the atmosphere, and the glimmers of light reflected off particles in the air are collected in the telescope.

By scanning the same area repeatedly, scientists can build a set of computerized data, stored on a hard disk attached to the telescope, which is then used to form a three-dimensional map of the air. Scientists can use the map to make detailed analyses of pollution patterns.

Michael Berger, a former nuclear weapons designer now working on the lidar project, says Los Alamos has been developing various uses of the technology since the 1960s.

The lab hurriedly scraped together a device for the Army during the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. But the war ended before employment of the system, which was built to detect the use of biological and chemical weapons by Iraq.

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Los Alamos has already provided the technology for several air quality tracking projects, including a mini-lidar system used in Barcelona at the 1992 Summer Olympics.

Santa Fe Technologies, a small New Mexico firm that holds the exclusive license to lidar air pollution monitoring technology, is also developing a commercial version of the mini-lidar that it hopes to market to cities for air pollution control.

For Disney, whose theme parks attract tens of millions of visitors a year, traffic-related air pollution is a serious issue. Pollutants left in the aftermath of its immense fireworks shows are also a potential target of lidar study.

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